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The OG Anunoby-Precious Achiuwa combo is the Knicks' secret playoff weapon

Kristian Winfield, New York Daily News on

Published in Basketball

NEW YORK — DeMar DeRozan got what he wanted — away from OG Anunoby.

It’s overtime of the regular-season finale at Madison Square Garden — a game with zero implications for a Play-In Tournament-bound Chicago Bulls team and direct consequences for the East’s No. 2-seeded Knicks — and DeRozan, the NBA’s reigning Mr. Clutch, has the ball in his hands.

Anunoby, the Knicks’ premier defensive stopper, is a nightmare matchup for the Bulls’ crafty clutch scorer, so Chicago’s center Nikola Vucevic sets a screen and drags DeRozan’s man out of the picture.

Over moves Anunoby. Up steps Precious Achiuwa.

With the Bulls down one with 8.5 seconds left in overtime, the game’s result — and the Knicks’ playoff standing — rests on Achiuwa’s shoulders.

DeRozan attacks from the left wing. He goes between the legs then brings the ball back out to the three-point line to re-establish an advantageous position against a bigger, less athletic defender. He uses an in-and-out dribble with his right hand in an attempt to shift the defender.

Achiuwa never moves.

Then DeRozan goes for his signature: a right-to-left swipe-through driving to the rim. The move almost always draws a foul on a defender with happy hands.

On this day, Achiuwa’s hands are disciplined: He holds them both high into the air and keeps his body vertical while contesting DeRozan’s floater attempt. Donte DiVincenzo also leaves his man to help contest the Bulls star’s game-winning attempt.

The would-be go-ahead shot bounces off front iron into Knicks possession.

New York wins in overtime, 120-119.

Only moments earlier in the final seconds of regulation, the Knicks shutdown the Bulls’ first attempt at a game-winner courtesy of Mr. Clutch.

It’s the reason Vucevic set the screen in the first place: because Anunoby is an eraser on the defensive end. He neutralizes even the most crafty, capable scorers, even more so when the pressure is on with a game on the line.

Anunoby forced the ball out of DeRozan’s hands twice on the Bulls’ final offensive possession of regulation with the game tied at 109 with under a minute left in the fourth quarter.

Chicago’s offense stifled. Their head coach Billy Donovan called a timeout to draw up a play to get DeRozan the ball once again.

And once again, Anunoby neutralized one of the most clutch performers in basketball history.

“It makes our lives a lot easier. There’s less different actions, more one on one,” DiVincenzo said of Anunoby’s defense. “At the end of the day, we’re living with — one on one — OG versus anyone in the league.”

“He’s a hell of a defender,” Achiuwa said of Anunoby. “I think he plays the same way from tipoff to the end of regulation. His intensity on the defensive end is always the same, and he’s a killer on that side.”

DeRozan started his attack at half court and drove to the right elbow, matched stride-for-stride by the Knicks’ defensive stopper. He tried to post up, but Anunoby was all over that, too. And ultimately, DeRozan settled on a turnaround fading shot which Anunoby’s defensive pressure forced well left of its target.

No luck against Anunoby. No luck after the switch onto Achiuwa. No luck in a hard-fought season finale at The Garden for a No. 9 Bulls team close to stealing a season-ending victory heading for a Play-In bout with the No. 10 Atlanta Hawks.

“He showed a lot of mental toughness. DeMar is a lot to deal with on every possession,” head coach Tom Thibodeau said. “He’s a great shot maker. One of the best. And, OG, the thing I love, he’s going to make you work. Even if you score, he’s going come back the next time and do it again and again and again. That’s what I love about him. His staying power.”

The Knicks are headed to the playoffs. They both secured the East’s No. 2 seed and recorded 50 wins in a season for the first time since Carmelo Anthony’s team won 54 games in the 2012-13 NBA season.

New York will own home-court advantage through at least the first two rounds of the playoffs. The Knicks are destined to face either the No. 7 Philadelphia 76ers or the No. 8 Miami Heat, who will face each other in the Play-In Tournament’s Seven-Eight Game to determine the seventh seed advancing into the playoffs.

And while the Knicks will live and die on Jalen Brunson’s All-Star sword, defensive versatility is the calling card for a team whose identity morphed with a mid-season trade struck just a few ticks before the calendar turned to the New Year.

It was the day the Knicks traded R.J. Barrett and Immanuel Quickley — two capable scorers but net-negative defenders — for Anunoby and Achiuwa: two versatile defenders expanding their offensive roles in New York.

And while Anunoby — and his neutralizing abilities as an individual defender — was the highlight of the deal, Achiuwa has emerged as a rotation player on a playoff-bound team.

He’s proven to be a versatile defender who can come up with big stops in high-pressure situations like he did with for the Knicks Sunday afternoon.

 

He’s proven to be part of a one-two defensive punch Thibodeau can deploy at any moment in the playoffs.

“They played great. They got key stops,” Brunson said of Anunoby and Achiuwa postgame. “It’s what they do. We’re not surprised. We’re just happy that they make plays like that.”

This is as close as it’ll ever get to there being a Toronto Knicks team: Anunoby and Achiuwa on the floor together, mirroring the defensive versatility which previously propelled the Raptors to perpetual playoff status.

Anunoby and Achiuwa have played 201 minutes together since arriving in New York in the trade with the Raptors. The Knicks are outscoring opponents by 28.8 points per 100 possessions in those minutes — 18.6 points per 100 possessions better than the team’s next-best two-man unit.

No player has a better net rating alongside Anunoby than Achiuwa. The Knicks are holding their opponents to just 90 points for every 100 possessions the two former Raptors spend on the floor together.

For what it’s worth, Anunoby is part of each of the five-best two-man lineups the Knicks have deployed since the trade.

Anunoby and Achiuwa, however, have played half the number of minutes as Anunoby and Josh Hart and a third of the number of minutes as Anunoby and Brunson.

This is no coincidence.

The two were teammates ever since the Miami Heat traded Achiuwa to the Raptors ahead of the 2021-22 season. In fact, Anunoby went to bat publicly for Achiuwa while the versatile forward struggled to find his footing in the Knicks’ rotation early after the mid-season trade.

Anunoby’s message: Be patient. Achiuwa is talented. Things will fall into place with time.

He was right. The Knicks have figured out how to deploy their reserve forward. Thibodeau has often lauded Achiuwa’s versatility, his ability to guard multiple positions and be a presence both on the glass and protecting the paint. The sporadic offense can be an added bonus, but nothing sums Achiuwa’s impact more than the minutes he played while Mitchell Robinson and Isaiah Hartenstein watched from the bench late on Sunday.

“Precious can guard the perimeter,” Anunoby told The Daily News after Achiuwa’s game-winning stop on DeRozan. “He can switch one through five.”

Achiuwa has cemented his spot in Thibodeau’s nine-man rotation. The defensive potential is too good, there’s too much juice left to squeeze out of an unflappable defensive combination of former Raptors.

And with Alec Burks virtually out of the rotation since the beginning of April, all signs point toward Achiuwa locking in the ninth and final playoff rotation spot.

“When teams go small, what Precious gives you is the ability to switch,” said Thibodeau. “So I think that’s important for us as well. And then he had a big put-back, too. Did some really good things for us.”

A good thing for the Knicks, who stand to benefit from the Anunoby-Achiuwa connection, now in its fourth season and counting.

A lesser defender — or a weaker bond between two teammates — would have created a more advantageous situation for DeRozan, who got the matchup he wanted, shedding Anunoby in crunch time for what he perceived as a more favorable matchup.

Little did he know he played right into the defense’s hands.

“For us, [switching is] always automatic,” Achiuwa told The Daily News. “What’s [OG] hears my voice, I’m coming up and I’m calling out the screen. He just knows he’s switching right away. It’s not like it’s a one-game thing. We’ve been doing this for years of playing together, so we have that chemistry on that end.”

Switching defensively will be key in the second round: One way or another, the Knicks will have their hands full. Be it a date with Joel Embiid‘s Philadelphia 76ers or the combination of Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo on a Miami Heat team cruising for the playoffs: The Knicks will need to be ready for a quality opponent in Round 1.

Anunoby’s reputation as a defensive stopper has long preceded his arrival in New York, but Achiuwa has, too, arrived as a staunch defender. He’s arrived as part of a playoff rotation that, without Julius Randle (shoulder surgery) will need to rely on defense more than ever.

Just like the Knicks relied on Achiuwa to get a stop on DeRozan on the final possession of the regular season.

He delivered in overtime. Anunoby delivered at the end of regulation. And the Knicks are off to the playoffs, with a secret weapon in their back pocket.

“We’re very similar when it comes to defensive capabilities in a lot of ways, so we just always talk about switching,” Achiuwa told The News. “For both of us, it’s always easier: We have size and the mobility to move sideways, up-ways, whatever the case is. That’s how we’ve always played whenever we’re on the floor together.”

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©2024 New York Daily News. Visit at nydailynews.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

 

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